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IOC Ethics Commission Model Lags Behind Others but Which System is Best?

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Photo: Instagram/Olympics

By Liam Morgan |

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) appears to have taken inspiration from a famous line in the 1999 film Fight Club when it comes to its much-maligned Ethics Commission.

“The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club,” the iconic quote goes.

American actor Brad Pitt’s immortal words as Tyler Durden seem rather apt when you replace the title of the film with the IOC Ethics Commission, the mere mention of which always receives a deflective and dismissive response when a journalist – or even an IOC member – has the temerity to ask a question about it.

Communications from the Ethics Commission, chaired by former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and established in 1999, are sporadic, while statements from the panel are reactive rather than proactive as a result of its processes as it neither opens cases nor directly makes decisions.

Of course, I am not naïve enough to believe the media should be allowed to sit in on the Ethics Commission’s meetings, which seem as rare as a contrite quote from IOC President Thomas Bach, nor would it be appropriate for the Commission to publish information on every complaint as some are minor and not all are instances of alleged high-level corruption.

But it was nonetheless interesting to hear an update on its activities at last month’s Session in Lausanne as a report was presented to the membership, which largely focused on the Commission’s “complex” relationship with national judicial authorities.

The prevailing theme was how the Ethics Commission is unable to sanction members accused of wrongdoing when their cases are linked to a criminal investigation.

This is all well and good and makes sense in some ways as the Commission does not want to be seen to be prejudging an active investigation, but it ignores the fact that there is a difference between violations of a criminal and ethical nature.

It also comes across as an excuse, allowing the IOC to put potentially damaging issues on the backburner, typified by the constant and irritatingly-frequent references to how the IOC is partie civile in corruption probes into the award of the 2016 and 2020 Olympics and Paralympics to Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo, respectively.

Those two words – ingrained in the organization’s lexicon arguably as much as Agenda 2020 these days – are rarely followed by any further explanation. Essentially, the IOC knows what is going on but does not want to tell us.

This did not stop the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) Ethics Committee declaring allegations against President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah after he was identified in a United States Department of Justice document relating to his football roles, which he subsequently relinquished, in 2017 as “fake and fabricated”.

A similar ringing endorsement from the OCA followed for Sheikh Ahmad when he was accused of forgery and for Tsunekazu Takeda, who stepped down as Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) last month following allegations of bribery, in March. Both deny wrongdoing.

Sheikh Ahmad and Takeda were each cleared to stand for re-election as President and vice-president, respectively, of the OCA at its General Assembly in Bangkok in March despite the ongoing legal cases.

So the OCA is able to make a ruling but the IOC is not, when both feasibly have access to the same evidence?

Takeda’s case provides another example of the flawed Ethics Commission model used by the IOC. His decision to resign as JOC President meant he lost his position as an IOC member and, as a result, the Ethics Commission closed the proceedings against him.

Surely the IOC should want to get to the bottom of the issue, irrespective of whether Takeda is a member or not, as the case could affect the Olympic Movement in general.

“The delays do not look good for the IOC, but the criminal aspects are a complicating factor, since the IOC has wrapped itself in the presumption of innocence issue – a criminal consideration – and leaves hanging the damage to the IOC consideration,” an IOC member told insidethegames on condition of anonymity.

“When the IOC did the Salt Lake City [2002] cleaning, there were no criminal considerations and we were able to deal with damaging conduct by IOC members in an expeditious manner.”

More generally, there are other problems with the Ethics Commission system at the IOC, chief among them the fact that it does not have the ability to sanction individuals or officials.

Instead, the group makes a private recommendation to the Executive Board, which delivers the final verdict. The powers-that-be at the IOC can decide to simply dismiss any recommendation and wash their hands of it.

Not only is this method open for undue influence, but it also gives the impression the Ethics Commission is an ultimately toothless panel which has little clout or power.

Others in the Olympic Movement have Ethics Commissions which can sanction officials directly, but this does not always produce more effective results.

Just look at FIFA, whose President Gianni Infantino ousted the governing body’s ethics judge and adjudicator in what some described as a purge in 2017 after it emerged they were looking into more than one separate instance of malpractice he allegedly committed.

The IOC’s Commission also falls short on the hallowed criteria of independence as three of its representatives are IOC members – and therefore could be asked to investigate one of their own – while questions were raised last year after my colleague Michael Pavitt uncovered how IOC director general Christophe de Kepper serves on the Board of a centre led by chairman Ban.

This type of conflict of interest is not uncommon. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Within the Olympic Movement, there are plenty of International Federations which essentially hand-pick members of their Ethics Commissions. To put it simply, they can choose the people who might end up investigating them.

It is not difficult to see an easy way out here; appoint sympathetic officials rather than those pesky ones who actually want to root out the “black sheep”, as IOC President Bach once described.

This is not to say that is what all Federations do but the system allows the potential for it to happen.

In truth, finding the right model for how an Ethics Commission should function is an arduous task and perhaps explains why International Federations, for example, seemingly prefer one of three systems.

The first is the IOC way, where the commission recommends a sanction to the ruling body. The second is the group works in conjunction with a disciplinary committee, a la FIFA and others like the International Gymnastics Federation, which makes the final decision on a possible punishment.

The third is perhaps the optimal solution; giving the Ethics Commission the ability to sanction guilty officials without having to go through another body or put their findings to an Executive Committee, a system used effectively by the International Association of Athletics Federations’ Athletics Integrity Unit, recently upheld as the prime example of how it should work.

In this day and age, where too many organisations pay lip-service to good governance, giving these Commissions sanctioning ability appears the best way to go.

Yes, this means centralising the power into a single entity and there is the risk of becoming judge, jury and executioner all at once, but surely that must be better than the defective system favoured by far too many sporting organisations.

“They are uneven at best, often beset by conflicts of interest,” said Roger Pielke Jr, a professor at the University of Colorado who has written papers on sports governance, when asked about the state of Ethics Commissions by insidethegames.

“This is an area where sport governance suffers from a lack of substantive oversight. Play the Game and various academics do comparative evaluations, and sometimes sports organisations do as well (eg, the non-public ASOIF review) but these are often cursory.

“Who indeed should be asked the question you pose: what should a properly functioning Ethics Commission look like for IFs and national governing bodies?”

It is a question sport is still struggling to find an answer to.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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